Household carbon dioxide emissions and why government policy to reduce them is odd

Households are responsible for over a quarter of the United Kingdoms’ carbon dioxide emissions, without including transport and cars. It should be fairly easy to get the emissions figures from households down significantly but there appears to have been only tiny reductions.

The emissions come from energy use, usually gas and electricity consumption, but in some cases heating oil and liquid petroleum gas consumption. These are the figures for domestic carbon dioxide emissions from DEFRA – the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

  • 53% from space heating
  • 20% from water heating
  • 24% from electrical lighting and appliances
  • 5% from cooking

These statistics vary from year to year as the weather varies. I think that when you look at other figures the emissions from water heating are probably slightly higher and the emissions from heating and cooking slightly lower, but for the purposes of this post I shall accept DEFRA’s figures.

What is the United Kingdom doing to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from houses by encouraging householders to take up renewable energy?

The answer is virtually nothing.

Together the heat technologies – space and water heating create three quarters of the emissions. Bear in mind that these are average figures only, so if you live in a very modern home the insulation will be higher and the share of space heating will decline, and water heating increase. If you have a large family the water heating figure will also be higher – and a large family in a very modern home will probably spend at least 60% of its heat carbon dioxide output on water heating.

The emissions by heat in homes are by far the greatest, no question about that even on DEFRA’s average figures. So you will be as puzzled as me when I explain that in an effort to reduce household emissions government policy has over the past years been to

  • Provide household photovoltaics with subsidies that generally were five or six times more than subsidies for renewable heat
  • Provide household wind turbines with not only direct subsidies but also indirect ones that together are on average twice the value of those provided for solar water heating.
  • Encourage the generation of renewable electricity by a Renewable Obligation, but have no similar incentive for the generation of renewable heat.

This odd state of affairs has existed for a number of years. I have asked Mr Wicks the Energy Minister on two occasions at public meetings in Blackpool and in Manchester (he was later to lose his post as energy minister only to be reappointed a year later) why there was no renewable heat obligation and why we had an electricity policy and not an energy policy, but unfortunately his replies were so unmemorable that I have forgotten what he said.

The UK’s renewable subsidy program is called “the Low Carbon Building Programme Phase 1” which was thought to be an improvement on its predecessor which was simply called “the Clear-Skies Scheme”.

The subsidy level is very low (it was reduced a year ago by 20% to £400), and what is worse (and the main reason why the subsidy is not being taken up in any significant numbers) is that this very low level of subsidy is conditional upon the applicant having done things or doing things which are completely unrelated to renewable water heating.

The applicant must install loft insulation, cavity wall insulation and low energy lighting. This is apparently because you should only get the subsidy (bear in mind it is only £400) if you are “holistic” enough to spend £700 on measures which will not make your water heating greener or more sustainable.

I understand that most people who install solar thermal systems do not bother with the subsidy, such is the unfortunate complexity and inappropriateness of the rules surrounding it.

While on the subject of subsidy, we should look at the value of the subsidy in relation to the Government’s tax take on a solar system. The value added tax rate of an installed solar system is 5%. That means if you spend £4200 on an installation, £200 is value added tax that goes to the government. This is exactly the same rate of tax that is charged on your highly polluting fossil fuel heating system.

The United Kingdom has only one real policy of reducing household emissions through its Carbon Emissions Reductions Target (CERT). Essentially this policy requires energy suppliers to add extra charges on their customer’s energy bills (usually around 4%) on the basis that the energy supplier is legally obliged to spend the money added on measures to reduce carbon emissions.

This makes it a bit like an additional energy tax – additional to the 5% VAT, which is hypothecated. Around 90% of the money so raised is spent on either supplying from insulation to vulnerable people or subsidised insulation for households that are not vulnerable. The remaining 10% is spent on other ways of reducing carbon emissions – such as handing out low energy light bulbs.

I am not sure that this policy is terribly effective; insulation does save energy, but I suspect that behaviourally if your energy costs less, you bathe and shower more and you turn the heat up and wear fewer clothes at home. I also doubt that the energy supply companies are the fittest organisations to undertake measures which effectively reduce their won turnover and profit.

However, I am sure that insulation is a key measure in carbon emission reduction, but it should not be the only measure and it is not the most important measure.

It is more important that we devote resources to generating energy from renewables. I think that the carbon dioxide savings will over the long term be higher and will last longer and that it will help the United Kingdom have a renewable energy industry which will be required to serve it more and more in the years to come.

The United Kingdom’s present ways of trying to save household carbon dioxide emissions are rather odd, when you think about it. The United Kingdom’s homes emit 25% of its carbon dioxide. Of that 53% is space heating and 20% for water heating. There is a scheme to save emissions on space heating by insulation, although how much it actually saves is not measured. There is a scheme to generously subsidise some of the 24% electricity consumption with renewable energy but for heat the subsidy is shrouded in such conditions that make it worthless for most people.

It all goes back to the questions that I asked Mr Wicks – why do we have an electricity policy and no energy policy and why is there no renewable heat obligation. These questions are still unanswered.



7 Responses

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  3. Really good questions – I don’t agree with all of your answers.


  4. Adding comment to your one of question and answers in the FAQ

    “Would you put solar panel on your home? and why?”
    1) It’s a great technology.
    2) It has low impact to the environment.

    Why Not:
    1) Initial cost is substantial. –“Poor Chinese and Indian could afford it without government grant, rich brits could NOT, that is a joke.”
    2) solar panel technology is greatly shooting up. I would hold out for a few more years when you can actually use it as a sustainable source and as a replacement source and not so much a suplimentary source. –“life is short, by the time u think it comes, you might be no longer around! It is NOT high tech, you could even make it yourself for Solar thermal collector with lower efficiency and reliability comparing to manufactured one on the market — sorry for being harsh”

  5. Harsh, but true, Yuning


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